Emails from Mali – Jan 17th

Today is January 16th 2013

I have just returned from Baroueli visiting the Kone family that I met through David, Kay and Sasha Pollack. It was a spectacular time that Gaoussou Kone and his family showed me. Gaoussou is a type of person my mother would describe as “A man with an extra eye in the back of his head.”  Despite his intense hard work in their little family restaurant, he also seems to be the ambassador of the town. He is the head of the farmers association and takes part in every small organization for the betterment of Baroueli. Gaousou Kone is also a respectful butcher in town because of his expertise in recognizing the healthiest animals. Being with this man in his native town is like watching a problem solver at work. What really impressed me the most is the fact that he seems to have time for everyone, small or big. Although Gaoussou does not carry the credentials of a western formal education, he certainly has many great qualities that the town of Baroueli needs. He and I share the same philosophy– that other people are simply our own reflection. Kindness and honesty to them gives us wellness and stability. During my time there, Gaoussou ordered all of his children to show their school work to me daily. It turns out that those children are excelling in school.

Part of my journey to Baroueli was also to work on my project of preserving Malian stories. I met with a woman cooperative for one day to show me their talents in spinning cotton into thread for weaving blankets, and their storytelling abilities. The Idea of preserving Malian stories has been endorsed by all the groups of people and individuals I have met. I think it is going to be the next great thing for us. Some schools wanted me to visit here in Bamako to tell stories, but my time is too short for their schedules. I also met with Alassane Diarra the leader of our poetry program here in Bamako. He said that his students are more dedicated than ever to exchange poems with schools in the U.S.A. 

I also decided not to go to Soni Cegni; instead to give the school supplies to someone else to deliver. Last night during my travel from Baroueli, our bus was pulled to the road side to clear the way for the most crazy looking weaponry and war machines I’ve ever seen. Also, I was traveling with my Oregon international driver’s license since that seemed a little safer than my easily recognizable American passport. Yet I was always the longest held person on the bus at checkpoints, because they wanted to make sure it was a valid identity. Sometimes I felt bad, but other times I was understanding of it. This was the first time I was ever asked to prove my identity in Mali –so folks, the war is officially on.

Though I will not make it to Soni Cegni this year, one parent named Ntchi from one of the 7 villages whose children benefit from our aid at the Soni Cegni school, has come to me and talked on behalf of all the 7 surrounding villages. He noted that these many years of KoFalen activities has cast light on not only the youngsters that go to school in Soni Cegni, but even the adults of the 7 villages. For them to write a simple letter, they no longer have to travel to Bamako or Kati, since their children can now do it for them. All this is due to the good things KoFalen has done to educate youth. He also said that they no longer pay school tuition because KoFalen already buys the textbooks, copy books, pens and many other things. The only thing parents of Soni Cegni and its 7 surrounding villages pay is 5 dollars a year for their soccer team and to support students from Soni Cegni to attend high schools across Mali.

Ntchi also said that the KoFalen interest in mask and cultural dance has encouraged a preservation program to grow. All the 7 surrounding villages of Soni Cegni have also started their own conservation of art and culture. Ntchi also said the girl circumcision education has taken root in at least the 7 villages surrounding Soni Cegni. Like I mentioned last week, they thank Ronna who talked with the scouts on this subject several years ago. Also the adobe stove building program has been helping many families. Ntchi ended his comments on KoFalen by saying, “From the celebration of Penda’s naming day 20 years ago, we have become one family.  This is one of the reasons others join me to regard children as symbols of peace and prosperity.”

People in the neighborhood in Bamako gathered together to play the Ngoussoun balla of Beledougou (Balafon of Beledougou) to show their appreciation for the 15 Families Program. But they were notified by authorities that it is now illegal to hold events that attract children and adults at one place, as the country is trying to prevent spies locating and targeting people. The lead to this gathering was our dear friend Chebba Diarra the Balafon woman. However, the gathering will take place somehow to make a video for all in America to see their appreciation….. You can see why I decided not to go to Soni Cegni.

Here in Mali, things are getting more dangerous day by day. The infiltration by rebels into the South is real; bad guys are caught all the time. At the post of entrance of Bamako, upon my return from Baroueli, 13 people were caught with stockpiles of weapons heading north. After witnessing this reality, there is no more unnecessary roaming around town for me. Unfortunately, people are not well informed of what is going on around them; most are eluded from reality by what they hear from neighbors, friends and from the many radio stations whose purpose is to calm people down. But the minority listening to VOA, RFI, and BBC are correct with what they say to others.  For an example, people of Baroueli believed that we had won the war just a few days ago, and I was also starting to believe it until I heard the RFI station. That was the exact time when Segou was under a great threat.  I am really worried about this kind of communication.

Our tutoring program is back in session, and going really well here at the Ko-Falen Center. When I first arrived, the class was crowded with 43 students; we had to bring some regular benches for children to sit. But after Ronna sent $ 200 from KoFalen’s budget, we built 5 more student benches with desktops for them, plus new books for the tutoring program. In many occasions I was discouraged about KoFalen because I sometimes felt like some of the new ideas are heading off track. But our education programs here and in Soni Cegni, the Youth Association program, and our program of preserving art and culture are giving me lots of hope. They give me hope because I can see not only our early students going to college, but also the kind of positive influence we have been leaving in the minds of people about us as Americans. The chief of the village of Soni Cegni once said “The fruit that you enjoy from a tree that is far away from your continent, is only possible through the flight of the bat.”  Thank KoFalen for taking the role of the bat.

Love from Mali,

Emails from Mali – Jan 16th

January 12, 2013Today I met with Adoulaye Karim at Ko-Falen to pick up his donation of half grain and half money. He is a man of small stature at 5 feet 3 inches tall, but do not let that fool you. This is a man that has dug over 500 wells with only a small hoe forged with a narrow pointy blade. And many of those wells are from 30 to 40 meters deep.  Most importantly, Abdou Karim’s presence in front of you is absolutely soothing.   He attracts everyone with his kindness and electrifying smile.   Jessica and Jon were drawn to him immediately, as they felt his kind human nature.  Jessica later remarked to me that she felt all the people chosen for aid were perfect candidates. “How did you choose these people?”

 “From many years of partnership,” I responded. Abdou Karim expressed his gratefulness on my video, but also wanted to sincerely thank Tami Dean, Ronna, and his namesake Shannon Spence for being his very first Western friends some 25 years ago. That is when he dug the well at my family home.  He is now about 49 years old with kids, and says the competition of well digging with the younger generation has made it hard for him to get jobs; also the reality in Mali at this moment definitely helped the grass blade to break at the joint. Now Karim is wondering about daily survival, looking for work to do.  Our help came to him at the appropriate time. Thank you.

Next, one of the heads of our families died a year ago and I was aware of it.  I purposely put his name in the list of families we need to honor. He was 98. His name known to me was Vieux Wattara (Wattara, The Elder), and during the time Ronna and I bought the land where Ko-Falen now stands and began the construction $1000 at a time, he was our only entertainer.  He had been living in this area which was farmland since 1960, the year that Mali gained its independence from France.  But all he got out of it from the government was a small 30 metres by 25 meters of land. He was not angry about it, as he believed that the earth does not belong to us, but simply allows us a sheltering place. I have over 6 hrs of video interviews with him, talking about his childhood and the very ancient way of Africans’ lives; also his time in the French West African army in Senegal during WWII.  Today January 12th, was the one year  anniversary of Vieux Wattara’s death, and I delivered his portion of aid to his family from us. I did not take my camera out of respect, as it was definitely a day of mourning him again.  The compound was full of his children and grandchildren. He had two wives–both present at the time.  I handed the money to the first wife, who is presently also the oldest in the compound. They all did blessings for us as they cried.  But I reminded them of Vieux Wattara’s own words, “We think and talk of our deceased loved ones to wipe the tears of the living–not to make them cry.”  They exclaimed at once, “He knows him well, he knows him well!” 

What we are doing here in Mali all the way from Oregon is definitely touching lives at the right spots. Thank you and much love.


Emails from Mali – Jan 15th

Hello KF Boards

Thought I would update you with this recent US Embassy in Mali message that Hawa Cheick just sent me.

Wague has just spent 3 days in Baraoueli south of Segou visiting Sasha Pollack’s host family during her Peace Corps stint.  He interviewed and documented a women’s cooperative that spins cotton into thread.  They are also known for telling stories, which was his focus.  He is on his way south back to Bamako now after a wonderful (and calm) visit.  On the road, there is a lot of military vehicle traffic he says, but no hysteria.  Let’s continue to hope for the best.


Subject: Fwd: New emergency message from Embassy Bamako

Per the web site:

Fighting in Diabali

January 14, 2013

On January 14, extremist Islamist elements invaded the town of Diabali, which lies about 100 km north of Segou in central Mali.  The struggle for control of Diabali is expected to continue.  French troops continue to arrive in Bamako and are moving to reinforce positions around Mali.

Given the spread of fighting into the Segou region, the U.S. Embassy reiterates its warning against any travel within the Segou region.  It also advises all U.S. citizens to leave any regions north of and including the city of Segou until fighting has been contained.  U.S. citizens who decide to stay in Segou should review their personal security plans, remain aware of their surroundings, and monitor local news stations for updates.  The U.S. embassy recommends that U.S. citizens in Mali maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance personal security and follow instructions of local authorities.  The U.S. Embassy will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates through emergency and security messages at

You can stay up to date by bookmarking our Bureau of Consular Affairs website, which contains the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution.  Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well, or you can download our free Smart Traveler App, available through iTunes and the Android marketplace, to have travel information at your fingertips.  If you don’t have internet access, current information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States, or for callers from other countries, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.  These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

All U.S. citizens in Mali are urged to enroll online at the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  Registering gives U.S. citizens access to updated information on travel and security within Mali and makes it easier for the Embassy to contact citizens in case of emergency.

The U.S. Embassy in Bamako is located at ACI 2000, Rue 243 Porte 297.  The consular Section can be contacted at  +223 2070 2505, or via email at  If you are a U.S. citizen in need of urgent assistance, please contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Marine Guard at  +223 2070 2301 or 2070 2302.

Emails from Mali – Jan 12th

January 12, 2013
Here is Wague’s latest.  I included for KF Board Members his update on KF Programs that he is also working on while he is there.
Wague is disturbed by the continuing events, but believes he will still remain there until Jan 28th.  France military is there now, and with Mali military have taken back (for now) the city Kona near Mopti.  Troops from Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria will be coming soon. –Ronna
Yesterday was sort of a chilly day. We barely had a sunny moment; the sky was covered with clouds. So I babysat my new niece Djeneba who is 8 months.  It was definitely a setback (parenting memory) moment for me with changing diapers and bathing her. Again this morning on January 9th I watched over her while her mother did some chores and rested a bit. She is a very active little girl who loves hopping and dancing; my entire arms are sore. But before noon my youngest sister Haby came to take over. So I now have a bit of time to write.

Regarding my program of preserving folk tales and oral histories, I met with Moctar Kone and Bakoroba Diabate today. I have to say that it was a fruitful meeting. We all agreed that there is an urgent need to rescue and preserve these important tools of our cultural heritage before they disappear for good. Bakoro noted “as a historian, I’ve never seen the world as it is today, our cultures and our tools of education are all disappearing before our eyes.” Then he agreed to be the one who would start doing research here in Mali to help me with the concrete foundation recruiting the tales for children education. We should be meeting again soon.

I also met with the head of Girl Scout of Soni Cegni (now Youth Assoc)  [remember readers, Soni Cegni is the village we visited at the start of our trip last year].   He said that one of the girls had died this year. They were hurt, but motivated by her contribution in their club. Because of that, they engaged into several great projects this year including the renewal of their education about girl circumcision. They particularly wanted to thank Ronna; it’s because of her that the program began. Now they are focusing on growing food organically. Their hope is to work on their own garden chemical free for a year before teaching others the technique.

I also met with Blanki and Dognoume last night regarding our Soni Cegni school programs and the preservation of their cultural heritages. We agreed on any date between Jan 20th though 23rd. Blanki will be heading to Soni Cegni soon to discuss with the elders and announce the date agreed upon. We also agreed that this year will not be a big event due to reasons known to us all. But the respectful process of courtesy toward the elders will be done as usual. I am planning to be their during school hrs to meet some teachers and students as I deliver their supplies.  My whole time there will be roughly 4 to 6 hrs.

Today I delivered a bag of rice to Hawa Ballo the blacksmith potter woman, and the remainder in money. She has lost her only son, who is her hope, in the North. She called on her two granddaughters who are now under her care to her side. She was shocked with American’s kindness and humanity toward her, but very pleased with our help to her. She held her jaw in her hand in deep thought and recited many words of blessing.

Our old friend Modibo Traore (who has been our cultural seeing eyes by using his ancient hunter Ngoni instrument to speak on our behalf to the elders of Soni Cegni), also received help from us. Modibo always takes the lead of our American visitors, and presents them with meaningful words in song to prove to the elders of Soni Cegni of our respectful purpose of visiting the village. Not enough dollars can reward Modibo for his ambassadorship. Just a couple of days ago, his father died from a long illness. Modibo himself is a father of 4.  This financial help will serve him beyond expectation. I talked to Modibo today; he sent his appreciations to Ko-falen and all that are thinking of Malians at this time.

Abdou Karim the well digger is meeting with me tonight and will receive his grain and money. So I will tell you about him soon.  In Mali we say you are the true beneficiary of what you do for others. Therefore, I do not want to spoil your kindness with the word “ thanks”.  According to the oral historian of Soni Cegni, as he points a finger skyward… “only this will pay you back.” Love,


Emails from Mali – Jan 10th

January 10, 2013

Things are getting more and more suspicious around here. Yesterday, a school full of children was taken hostage by the bad guys and Mali soldiers that came to help were told to put their weapons down to save the children; then the bad guys killed those 12 soldiers. But the military retaliated and killed 30 bad guys. But they don’t to know if some of them may have infiltrated into the Mopti area. So the minister of education announced last night all schools from first grade to universities be closed until they are ordered to open. They said the safety of children is the first priority. Since the minister said that his announcement includes private schools, organizational tutoring or anywhere where 10 or more kids are taught. Modibo is going to pause classes at the center for a few days because the law said so, but also for safety reasons of all our children. Our new niece and daughter (Djeneba, Madou and Bade’s baby) is definitely the sunshine of the day here, she give us hope daily with her charming smiles.

Only love from us,
Wague, Madou, Seydou,& Modibo

Emails from Mali – Jan 8th

[Note: Since December 28th, 2012, Baba Wague Diakite has been in Mali visiting family and friends and to pass out aid to 15 families.  The money for Wague and Ronna’s aid program has come from fundraisers, donations, and art sales here in America.  Here is the first of a collection of emails from Wague that give us a personal view of what is happening in this beautiful country and to our friends and extended families living in the middle of this crisis.]
January 8, 2013
Greetings to all of you who helped make this possible, 

The 15 Families aid program that Ronna and I put together is still in process as of today. It is going well, but I must say that it has been very difficult and emotional to be seen delivering food and money to a few among the many numbers of people that are in need at this time.  Sometimes I get watery eyes, other times I feel proud.  Although 10 out of the 15 families have already been helped, it has not been easy to find or locate others.  People are going far afield to gain the daily bread for their families, so they are gone all day until late at night.

Mariam Doumbia was the very first recipient of the 15 families. After meeting with her, I suddenly realized that our plan of buying bags of rice and millet for every family may not be the most urgent for them all. Mariam has high blood pressure, she is diabetic, and has eye problems.  The doctor had advised her to rather miss a meal than her daily medicine. So she had preferred to receive a portion in money for her medicine.

Chebba Diarra is someone that most people who have come to Mali through Kofalen have met or know her.  She and her husband spent many years welcoming our group in the neighborhood with the sweet sound of the Balafon of the Beledougou region.  But her husband could no longer make money to care for them and after 2 of their children died this year, the husband had a mental breakdown and abandoned her and the remainder small 5 kids. So, Chebba fit perfectly for the need of food. We brought her one bag of rice, one bag of millet and the other half in cash to buy groceries and children necessities.

Today, I met Hawa Ballo the blacksmith woman who is a potter. Her story is even more heartbreaking. She lost her only son who is her hope, in the North. I did some interview with her and took a few photos but forgot to ask her permission to use the images. Her story will be in the next edition. 

I cannot and will not be able to have pictures and videos of all my recipients, because they feel embarrassed to portray their poor condition to the world, and I respect that as it is.

Yesterday, Moctar Kone–one of the greatest oral historians in Mali at this time, told Jessica and Jon (visiting Ko-Falen) that “all Americans that had the chance to come to this country with Wague are very lucky. Because he has good things to say about Americans, he helps give us Malians peace of mind and makes U.S. look to us as a wonderful place. But we also know he is like that with you. Wague is so proud of Mali that he brings you Americans to meet and know his people, and that is why you come over and over again. But if he was a fool person, we wouldn’t even respect the people that followed him.”

He is very kind to say this.
Love to all,

Not an Epilogue …

It has been an interesting re-entry these past 9 months and the idea of an epilogue has slowly been swimming around my head. I think I have enough perspective now to get something on paper ….. but this post is not yet it.

No, this post is about something a bit more emotional for me. I received an email a few weeks ago from my fellow travelers, and in it was news that Peace Corps Baba is very sick. Liver cancer sick. Not a good turn of events in anyone’s life, but even less so for someone in Mali.

You may remember Peace Corps Baba from earlier in my blog?  I measured his building with a piece of knotted twine and a tailor’s tape; my helpers a couple of smiling children.  Since then, we have finished the design and he has actually started the renovation of the building (pretty amazing given the internal turmoil in Mali at the moment!).  But … Peace Corps is like that.  He is a bit of a force of nature; one walking in joy and a smile perpetually on his face.  I am not sure there is any one I have met in my life that better encapsulates the idea of being present in the world.  So …. here is this incredible ambassador of West Africa being laid low.

The purpose of this post is rather simple. It is for me to ask for support in any way we can give it. Money, prayers, thoughts of good energy …. all are helpful and will be well received. Its very strange doing this, I’ve never asked for help in a public setting. This man is special, however, and he is well worth any discomfort I have to put this out for the world.

I’ve attached a link to a website that is taking donations, although I think the time period is over tomorrow. I’ve also included an email link for the good folks on the Ko-Falen board who are friends of Peace Corps Baba’s and who would be happy to receive donations and well wishes for him. They will pass them all on to his family.

Here is the email link to the Indiegogo fundraising site:

Here is the link to the email for the Ko-Falen Board (attention Ronna Neuenschwander):

And here is a cut and paste from the indiegogo site that tells you a little more about Peace Corps Baba and what we are trying to do.

Peace Corps Baba!

Fundraiser for Oumar Cisse, known as Peace Corps Baba
Help us raise funds for Baba’s urgently needed surgery, scheduled for November 12 in France.

Our dear friend, Oumar Cisse, known to most of the world as Peace Corps Baba, needs our help. Baba makes his living as an art merchant, living in Mopti, Mali. He is an ambassador for Mail, traveling to neighboring countries, the US and Europe, selling ethnic jewelry and textiles of the many artisans of his country, and in the process supports hundreds of fellow Malians and their families. Baba’s life’s work has always been more than selling jewelry, beads and textiles. It is about serving people – uplifting, mentoring, inspiring, providing opportunity to the people of his area of the world. He is the selfless friend to the young and old who work with him, his neighbors, to travelers who never forget him, to fellow exporters and importers. He is a legend throughout West Africa and a mention of him elicits immediate respect. There is no wonder why the Peace Corps honored him with his title of Peace Corps Baba.

Peace Corps Baba never asks for anything in return for all that he does. But now, he needs help. A couple weeks ago he was diagnosed liver cancer requiring medical attention immediately. His surgery, which will be done in France, has been delayed until 55,000 Euro can be raised. Recovery and treatment for this will be costly as well. The need for this funding is very urgent!

Please join those of us who know and love him by donating what you can. In addition to your contributions, we need you to pass this request on to people in your network, your face book friends, your blogs and tweets. Many small donations will make it so we can reach or exceed our goal of raising $10k by October 24.

As a young man he worked as a language instructor to new Mali Peace Corps volunteers, and was encouraged by them to build a business out of the beaded jewelry he created. Over the past 30 years he has returned the benefits he received from PCV several hundred fold. His selfless existence is in service of his people, his West African country, and the friends he has made from around the world. He makes sure hundreds of Malian artisans have work and that Malian exports are known for their traditional origins and quality. He is a peacemaker – the one that people come to solve property, family, and neighborhood disputes. People line up in the evening outside of his home to talk to him asking for money for food for their families and opportunity to succeed – no one leaves without his encouragement and enough food or money to feed their family for the next day.

Peace Corps Baba is in love with life and gives of himself every waking hour. He is devoted to his family, a loyal friend, a national treasure and a model for what is right in the world. At a time when Mali is experiencing devastating infrastructure deterioration, he cannot look to his neighbors and friends at home to help. This man is most deserving. With many people providing a donation, we can put a significant dent in the expenses he is accruing to stabilize his health and continue to be the important person he is in the world.

“Show your support for a great man, contribute TODAY and make TOMORROW a better world for one man, his family, our tribe, two nations, ONE WORLD!” SS

Dogon Country!!

[Heaven is indeed a fast internet connection; pictures are uploaded!]

Monday, 2/6/12
4:30am once again found us stumbling around and getting ready to depart for the bus station.  Everyone was awake (it was a full moon) and we were seen off by Deidre, Wague and Hossein.  The bus left very close to 7am (on-time!) and 9 hours later we were in Mopti taking a cab to Sevare and Peace Corps Baba’s shop.

It was a very weird weather day.  Overcast, dusty (the sun was not visible at all) and cold.  It was the Harmattan, a wind blowing South from the Sahara  and it was miserable.  At Mopti, near the Niger river, it was almost like a sea mist mixed with dust.  The evening meal, taken outside (as is the case with most local restaurants), was a cold affair and it was nice to be all tucked up in my sleeping bag later that night.

Tuesday, 2/7/12
It was only a 3 hour car ride to Sanga, the capital village of Dogon.  The ride was asphalt until Bandiagara and then a surprisingly well kept dirt road to Sanga.  Unlike other unpaved roads we’ve been on, this one was quite passable and maintained.  The closer we got to Sanga (i.e. the further we traveled off the beaten path), the nicer the road(!).  The bridges were of sound concrete with dressed stone buttresses and supports and the road was lined with dressed stone curbs.  The road surface itself was at times just the solid underlying rock of the area.  We were approaching the Bandiagara escarpment (the Dogon call it Coco).

This escarpment is quite tall, at times over 1500 feet, and it stretches over 150km.  It separates the rock plateau on the north from the flat scrub land to the South.

The Dogon moved into this area in the 14th century, displacing the Tellem (not gently either) who had inhabited the cliff face for centuries.  The Tellem were a small people (pygmies) and built most of their structures directly into the cliff face hundreds of feet off the valley floor.  The Dogon, in contrast, built most of their structures on the plateau above or directly at the base of the cliff for easier access to farm land.  The Tellem stone work was primitive in comparison to the Dogons’ more refined stone based construction tradition, and they tended to use more mud than rock to seal the mouth of their cave-like dwellings.

The Dogons’ knowledge and skill of stone construction is very high.  At times it was similar in feeling to the stone vernacular I explored in Northern Italy, though the forms of the buildings are obviously of different character.

Dogon, compared to Bamako and the mud vernacular seen elsewhere, seems more solid to the touch and more rooted to the ground.  The villages are laid out according to informal principles, and organized around the topography and a main square.  All of the dwellings are of a courtyard typology, abutting each other, with small lanes (some no wider than 3 feet) for passage.  It is easy to get turned around here, but out guide, Seck Dolo, is Dogon, and this is his home village.  Rather than getting lost, we were more apt to get pulled into a house to see local life.

We were able to see the Hogan (village elder), and the Ogotemly’s (hunter and medicine man) house.  We were also able to see Seck’s mother and father, the menstrual huts, many granaries, and of course, the Taguna.  The Taguna is a low ceilinged structure with an amazingly tall roof made from overlapping wood logs, branches, and reeds.   The Taguna is used for hashing out quarrels and for meetings where it is important to reach consensus.  The low ceiling is to keep people sitting in a more submissive posture and prevent them from rising up in anger.

The landscape here reminds me of the American SW.  The high plateau, where sits Sanga, has many minor (5 feet to 30 feet) elevation changes.  Eleven villages comprise the main village of Sanga and the handful that are located on the plateau (the rest are at the base of the cliff) are organized on and around these elevation changes.  We were able to see three of the plateau villages; Ogolay Tabda, Ogoda, and Bongo.

Thousands of Baobab trees (sacred … and useful to the Dogons) populate the plateau area as do 8000 Dogon.  Of the 24,000 Dogon in the area per the last census, the remaining live in the other villages along the cliff base in the valley below.  The Baobab trees all look like something out of a Dr Seuss book; large bulbous trunks, stumpy limbs, small leaves that seem to attach directly to the trunk, and a section of the trunk that is stripped of bark to make rope.    These trees are very useful to the locals, providing them with rope, wood for kindling, green sauce from the leaves, kids rattles (from the seed husk), seeds for eating and for making a tasty millet cream.  The tree also holds an inordinate amount of water and in a pinch, one could tap into this not unlike the cactus.  And they look like something Dr Seuss would dream up (or did I already say that 😉

We had a very nice place to stay that night; open air, clean and with a good supply of beer and soda.  The food was filling and a pleasant night was spent on the plateau.

Wednesday, 2/8/12
We started our descent in the village of Bongo, walking through a natural tunnel and emerging at the trail head.  Our walk down the cliff face passed by in a blur.  I was a child again climbing over rock falls in North Carolina, a young man in Big Bend, Texas climbing around Boquillas Canyon, and as a wizened dude just a few years ago spending 5 days in the Mohave desert clambering over outcrops and through dry washes hunting for the perfect building site for a new BLM visitor center.

And now, on this day, on the Bandiagara escarpment in West Africa, I was falling again in love with this landscape.  Above me a basalt plateau, below, the plains of Africa stretching South to the heart of the continent.  And here, on the vertical face that for this day was my clung-to home, all the reasons I had so many years ago for almost becoming a geologist came flooding back.  Combined with my love of exploring new-to-me cultures, I was indeed in bliss.

The cliff in this area was over 1000 feet tall, shear and broken only by carved trails down to the valley floor.  The horizontal striation of the face gave the inhabitants a starting place for the trails and connect the many villages vertically.  We shared the trail with a line of villagers from below (mostly women) coming up this steep and not untreacherous path.  They were loaded with goods for the market in Sanga above and, of course, were carrying everything on their heads.  It reminded me of Garrison Keilor’s description of Lake Wobegon where the “women are strong, the men good looking, and the children all above average”.   The women are incredibly strong here (and I must admit, very beautiful as well).

The cliff base was reached all too soon however, and although a bit sad, I can now write with fewer metaphors.  We left the cliff base via the village of Bananey and passed again into the Sahel.  Walking on the flat of the scrub foliage and dry farmland was surprisingly no less spectacular than the cliffs, but inward focused.  It was quiet with the just the occasional blat of a stray goat to break the silence.  My mind wondered as I took in the different landscape and smells, trying to put into past experience this walk.  I couldn’t do it.  To just stop and look out over the landscape and imagine the rest of Africa stretching before me …….

We passed the village of Baegue on our walk to our stopping point of Irlle.  We arrived in Irelle in the afternoon and had a rest on the covered roof top of this evening’s shelter.  Back on our feet and walking again by late afternoon, we headed up the cliff face towards upper Irlle and a closer look at the Tellem houses above.  We are allowed to the base of the escarpment and within site of the ancient Dogon structures built into the rock.  These houses are not generally occupied and are in various states of disrepair, though the cliff shadow has protected them from most of the typical rain damage you see on the flats of the plain.

Above these original Dogon houses sit the Tellem dwellings.  These little houses are actually nestled into the cliff along the horizontal strata.  They are tiny houses and some are 400-500 feet above the cliff base; accessible only by rope and ladders.  Besides houses, the Tellem strata also hold many shrines and burial caves.  Because of this, we are not allowed to climb into the Tellem area; which is probably a good thing as I would have gotten myself into trouble getting into places I had no chance of getting out!

On this day, we were also going to see the crocodiles at the Village of Amani.  The village totem, these crocodiles wander the town and it is forbidden to harm them; death being your reward if you try (sounds like a no-win situation to me; death by village magic, or death by the croc itself;-)

Unfortunately (fortunately?) we didn’t go.  The village between Irlle and Amani, Yeye, had an annual fetish day (all of Dogon is animist) sometime this month.  No one knew which day of the month this was going to happen, but the whole of Dogon was alert and no-one was going to, or past Yeye until the fetish day had past.

The villagers of Yeye spend the day fishing in the lake, bringing power to the village by the active worship.  If a stranger happens upon this scene, a fish is thrown at them to indicate they are to help with the fishing.  Afterwards, the poor slob is sacrificed.  The Dogon say that even if you run away and don’t stick around to be offed, the magic is strong enough that you will still drop dead.

So, facing a journey of fish throwing (not to be confused with Monte Python’s fish dance), curses and powerful magic, only to be eaten by a croc at our destination, we decided to go back to the cozy rooftop camp and join the village later that night to watch Mali in the Africa Cup Semifinals.

It was interesting to be in the middle of nowhere (literally too, this was the first time in all of Africa – and that includes Timbuktu – that I had no bars of service on my cell phone!) and watch the villagers hook up the 16” color TV to an inverter and a car battery, somehow get a crystal clear signal in the middle of a school yard in the middle of nowhere, and watch Mali lose a heart breaker to Cote d’ Ivoire 0-1.

To my folks … Happy 55th anniversary!!!

Thursday, 2/9/12
Waking early, we eat a hearty breakfast of …. Donuts!!! (flour deep fried – a staple of every culture I’ve had the pleasure of exploring) … and green hibiscus and fish (the green hibiscus is sweeter than spinach or kale).  At the end of the meal, mama brings out the green millet cakes for me to pass out to the children.

Why you ask?  Back in Sanga, on the first day of our journey through Dogon, we visited the village seerer.  The outcome of my reading was good, but she did say I needed to make a sacrifice to the children by passing out millet cakes to them.  Believe what we may, I chose to see the parallels with my inability to know how to treat the children I see on this trip.  I’ve blogged about it earlier and although I love to interact with the children and play with them and walk with them and hold hands …. They need money and food and help.  Wrestling with my very Western concept that we all need to first help ourselves and we shouldn’t just give handouts (and yet all the guides and locals say the same thing) and my inability to know what the hell to do, passing out Millet cakes just seems like a good thing.

And what a fun thing it was!  Kids were coming out of the woodwork and 50 Millet cakes were gone in minutes.  When done, the children reached into the bowl and blessed the food.  It was very heartwarming, even if it was not a spontaneous event.

Off to the cliff face, we watched a couple of older men climb to the first level of the Tellem houses.  No amount of pleading on my part got me any further up the cliff and I had to be content with waving to them from the bottom.

Leaving there, we started the steep ascent to the plateau.  We used a natural wash as our rock ladder; it was steep and we were at times on a narrow ledge with a 200 foot drop at our backs.  This was definitely THE adventure on this trip.  All too soon we were safely into a hanging valley and the start of the plateau and the farm land of upper Sanga.  Tellem houses followed us all the way up the dry wash until we were nearly at the top and the bald rock of the plateau.

We passed through the first upper village of Barou and were soon again collecting the stuff we left behind, eating lunch, and getting ready for the drive back to Sevare.  Our last stop on the plateau that day was to visit one of the families that does the indigo cloth dying.  We saw the vats of dye in all stages, from the dried acacia leaves to the boiled and finished dye that has been set with phosphate.

The finished cloth is an amazing piece of hard work.  All areas of the cloth that are desired to remain white are sewn up in intricate patterns with tens of thousands of stitches to prevent the taking of the dye.    The cloth is soaked in the dye (sometimes numerous times) and then the seams are ripped.  This dyed cloth, along with the Bogolon cloth of the Bambaran, stand up beautifully to the landscape and the people of Mali as one of its great treasures.


[Pictures are FINALLY uploaded!]

Saturday, 1/14/12  …. Cont.
Made it safely back to the paved roads once we reached Douentza.  The remaining portion of the trip to Sevare passed in blissful smoothness.  We arrived at Peace Corps Baba’s shop in the late afternoon and we all treated ourselves to a nice, cold shower.  Refreshed, I spent our remaining light measuring Peace Corp’s building.

And I’ve never measured like this before.  Knotted twine and a tailor’s tape my instruments; a cadre of enthusiastic children ages 3 to 12 my assistants.  To be honest, once we worked out a system, it was a pretty smooth operation.  Never have I had as much fun doing such a normally thankless task!

At dusk, we stopped the measuring and Joyce, Larry and myself went out for a delicious meal at a restaurant down the road.  Fish, beef, spaghetti, beer, soda …. You name it, we had it.  I think we felt like celebrating after the drive from Timbuktu.  Deia joined us, along with “Pierre Cardin”, a local tailor with a self given moniker.  He makes a great shirt and his signature “air-conditioned” pants (pants that are split down the inseam and tied on so you have an open inseam on both legs).  It was a relaxing evening and a sound sleep.

Sunday 1/15/12
Woke up refreshed and jumped back into the measuring of the building with my apprentice crew.  We were done by 9:30am.  Not bad; only took 5 hours from start to finish.  I bought a most beautiful purple and iridescent blue wedding blanket from a street vendor outside the shop, we said our goodbyes for now, and  jumped into the 4×4 for the trip to Djenne.

[Sitting at a military checkpoint …. They are everywhere, and yet seem very innocuous.  I think they are mainly to keep track of people as they go into and out of the various administrative areas of Mali.  As usual, kids everywhere and looking very hungry.]

We’ll spend the day exploring the mud architecture in Djenne, as well as its weekly market.  We have one night there and will be back in Bamako the following night.  We are done with the sand of the Sahara and back in the grass steppes and stunted growth of the Sahel.  The soil is red again and the built environment is familiar laid-up mud courses and typical rectilinear buildings.

We were in Djenne by mid-day, soon checked into our modest room and taking a mini-foray into town.  The “hotel” construction is typical of this town; mud brick covered with a mud skim coat.  Variations between buildings take the form of decorative riffs and size variations.

The old city of Djenne was originally located across the Bani River, and was founded in 3 BC.  This site was continuously occupied until the 14th century, when it was moved to its present location.  The city evolved from its inception into one of the most important trading centers in West Africa and was the geographical and cultural confluence of the animistic beliefs to the South and the Arabic culture and Islam beliefs to the North.  Through Timbuktu may share some of the glory as a trading place, Djenne was a more important trading town and predates Timbuktu by 16 or 17 centuries.  The site of the old town is a protected archeological site and the foundation traces of the old city are littered with centuries old pottery and human bones.

Djenne’s move across the river started when the Muslims built a Mosque on the North side to separate themselves from the animists.  Being traders and business men, trade and commerce naturally started to increase at the new city site.  At some point in the 13th or 14th century, the original site was abandoned and the new town began to flourish.

The urban fabric of Djenne is informal in quality, with serpentine streets and alleys leading to surprise squares and dead ends alike.  The town seems to be organized around the main square and Mosque.  Travelers to European towns with an intact medieval section and their similar city fabric will not be surprised.

Not surprised, that is, except by the mud (vs stone) used everywhere as a building material.  The layout of the houses, not just in juxtaposition with their neighbors, but in their internal layout, is exquisite.  Most are courtyard homes and all have an intimate quality between interior and exterior space and between public and private space within the walls of the house.

Many of the buildings are in varying states of disrepair, but that doesn’t stop the lively human interactions (this is Mali after all!).  The courtyard is the heart of the house and most homes spiral up 2 or 3 floors with a walkway/arcade on at least one side of the court at each level.  Tiles often line the floor and walls of the court and illustrate the layering of cultures from North and South.  The sounds of kids and home life echo throughout and, if you have been reading this blog on a regular basis, you won’t be surprised that the sound of children is THE universal given here in this culture.

Across the Sahara: Timbuktu to Douentza in a 4×4 … or … In Shaa’Allah

Note: Pictures have been uploaded and are at the end of the post.  Finally got a little speed out of our internet connection!

A friend of mine spent a couple of years in Africa (Morocco) while with the Peace Corps 20 years ago.  She has this habit of saying “In Shaa’Allah” (Arabic for “God Willing”) quite a bit in her everyday life.  Being a self actualized guy, an entrepreneur and somewhat assertive in life, I really have never understood that saying at its deepest level; until now.  My goodness do I understand it now.

In Shaa’Allah is an everyday saying here in Africa.  Just to procure something, be it a hammer, a chicken, dish soap, whatever, you need to spend the time to go to the market, all the while hoping the merchant has the goods.  If not,  you keep walking, pick up a little here, a little there, changing plans and strategies along the way.  “I’ll be right back with the stuff!” … In Shaa’Allah

“We’re going to the museum to study the history of the textiles and statues of the area.  Be back this afternoon!”  Ha! Riots in the streets changed that around in an instant.… In Shaa’Allah

The bus leaves at 7am …. In Shaa’Allah

And you know what?  Sometimes the added time or the diversion actually begets something else that is wonderful ….. In Shaa’Allah.

But the best example for me, and the one that had me laughing my ass off (and being grateful that I was still alive) was the ride back to civilization from Timbuktu in a stone stock, ½ assed 4×4.  It starts with 7 of us crammed into a Mitsubishi “Galloper”, leaving Timbuktu early in the morning.  We are heading back to civilization, 5 hours across the Sahara to Douentza and then another 4 hours down a minimally paved road to Sevare.  The 4×4 is ready to go across the Sahara right?  Ha.  We push start the jeep (is it the battery? because the alternator is bad?); the gas gauge shows ¼ tank. Onward! … In Shaa’Allah.

We make our way down to the port, board a ferry, and spend a very enjoyable hour going down the Niger to the small disembarking village at the head of the road to Douentza.  I am blessed to meet a like-minded soul and fellow traveler, Fabian, an organic farmer from the South of France (a village called Tourtour).  It is a delightful visit! And alas, it is also the last bit of calm we have until we again reach paved roads late that afternoon.

[Note … to read the rest of this story you will need an assistant.  His or her job is to help you experience the ride.  Simple words will not do this justice]

[WARNING!  This story is almost as dangerous to re-enact using my directions as it was to experience first-hand.  If you follow these instructions you are as stupid as we were to take this E-ticket ride in the first place.  Don’t do it!  But if you do, send pictures]

Imagine a bunk bed on wheels and you are in the top bunk.  This is your ride.
Here are the vignettes that help to describe the experience.

Sand, soft like sugar, going fast, 70mph, all four wheels on the ground, heading for a soft right turn, slightly uphill, drifting, no seatbelts, a feeling of dread permeates the inside of the 4×4;
[make sure reader is sitting on the top bunk.  Start to run fast.  Let bunk bed go off-course towards wall.  Watch reader’s eyes and when they widen to size of quarters, recover and save bed from crashing into wall]

At the crown of the hill, the radius of the turn decreases suddenly and the descent is steep.  There is a huge rock on the outside of the curve, and a high ledge at the concrete bridge apron at the base of the descent.  With the exception of careening into the dry wash below, there is no way around this funnel.  We recover from the drift, hit the off-camber crown, fishtail down the descent and hit the ledge hard enough to hit our heads on the roof (and think we broke the suspension on the 4×4).
[Yank the bunk bed around the curve, making sure to put enough wobble into the contraption to make the reader think they are going to tip over.  Tighten curve and kick bunk bed down the porch stairs.  Hit reader on head with lightweight cooking pot, medium hard.  Record reader’s curses for continuous playback during remainder of story].

Out of nowhere, another 12” ledge, hit at 60mph
[put little child onto top bunk with reader.  Have little kid kick reader in groin and hit on head with same pot as used before]

We are in the wake from the car ahead of us.  Its like being in the Paris to Dakar Rally!  Dust and sand is everywhere and seeping through the air vents.  We can’t see and can’t open the windows.
[Throw vacuum bag contents into reader’s face]

Wwwwwwaaaaaaasssshhhhbbbboooaaaasrrrrrddddddd   rrrrrrrrrrrroooooBUMP!ooooaaaaaaddddddd  aaaaaggggggaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnnn……    Tttttttttrrrrrrryyyyyy   tttttttooooo  BUMP! ssuuuuurrrrrrfffffff ooooooooovvvvvvveeeeeeeerrrrrrrr  aaaaaaBUMP!tttttttt  666666660000000000mmmmmpppppphhhhh.
[Stand behind reader and hit rapidly on back so that they make the sound of a motorboat.  Don’t stop; ever.  When you get tired, enlist little kid again to take over for you]

Another decreasing radius descent entered from a blind corner.  In the road in front of us a …. GOAT! …. GaspCurseBeep!!!
[wet reader’s hand and stick their finger directly into electrical outlet]

Re-read story for 5 hours, repeat all instructions.
[At the end of the 5 hours, drop a watermelon on the reader’s head as a final way to share the absurdity of the adventure;-]

How we made it to Douentza in one piece, wheels down, without a flat tire, running out of gas or losing the alternator, I have no idea …. In Shaa’Allah.  It also made us closer as a group, gave us one heck of a story, and made me think that God does have bigger plans for us than dying in the Sahara.